|Remember this? Here's hoping for more|
Swimming fans are not a monolith, but if I were to generalize I would say we were pretty fired up in 2008. Phelps pursuit of eight golds dominated the Olympic lead up as well as the actual event. It's damn fun to have swimming be the biggest sports news in the world. It didn't hurt that there was no shortage of drama along the way, with the meet featuring two of the greatest finishes in recent history.
At the time, I thought it was inevitable that there would be a backlash. I never imagined it would be this bad. First their was the bong incident. Then, Ryan Lochte surpassed him in summer 2010. He finished an embarassing 14th in the world in an event (400 IM) he was once untouchable in. He promptly "retired" from swimming it. Lochte mania was on- fans were deluged with stories. Lochte is doing strongman training! Lochte trains approximately 1,053,005,325 yards a day! Lochte is a model! Lochte has sneakers! Meanwhile, Phelps was called out by his own coach for his work habits and continually harassed by a Southern California master's swimmer.
The public perception of Phelps completely changed. It wasn't cool to root for him anymore- he was portrayed as a child squandering his talent. It didn't help the matter that Lochte was a "late bloomer" in comparison, a swimmer who didn't really take off internationally until entering college. Nor did the fact that Phelps had always been uncomfortable at best with media, whereas Lochte, despite saying little more of substance, managed to project a sort of "surfer" cool.
All of this ignores the significant challenges that Phelps has faced. If we've learned anything from hollywood, it's that child stardom can trap someone at the maturity level they became famous at. Phelps is now well into adult hood, yet he remains with the same coach he's had since he was twelve- a coach who from my vantage point has gained far more from that relationship for quite a while now. Not too mention- what do you do after the best Olympic performance of all time? Where do you go from there?
And so, as Phelps' Olympic swan song approached, the narrative was clear. Phelps would limp off into the sunset. Where once he dazzled audiences with his world class abilities in anything but breaststroke (not too shabby there either), Phelps would go out as a specialist. He would likely win the flys and round out the podium with Lochte in the 200 free and IM.
Only, it's looking a little more lately like that's not a given. This summer in Omaha, and beyond, I'll be cheering for Phelps again, whether it's "cool" to do so or not. It has nothing to do with Lochte or his opponents, it's just that if I'm about to see the last couple races of perhaps the best swimmer I'll ever see, I'd rather they be spectacular.